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Sarcophagus of Doña Sancha

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El Real Monasterio de las Benedictinas

The Royal Monastery of the Benedictines (or El Real Monasterio de las Benedictinas), founded in 1555, served as the new convent for the Benedictine nuns who moved here from the church of Santa María of Santa Cruz de la Serós (about fifteen kilometers from Jaca), at the request of Philip II (1). The new Renaissance building was built next to the Romanesque church of San Ginés, overlooking the medieval city walls of Jaca (2). The sarcophagus of Doña Sancha that is of particular interest to us followed the nuns' move from Santa Cruz de la Serós to Jaca almost a century later, in 1622, and has remained there up to the present day (3).

Doña Sancha (d. 1097) was a politically active and powerful woman, and not only because she was the daughter of Ramíro I of Aragón, and sister of Sancho Ramírez. Sancha, like her sisters Teresa and Urraca, was a generous patroness of Santa María of Santa Cruz de la Serós, and though none of the sisters was ever named abbess of Santa María, they held considerable influence there - Sancha even ruled as a secular domina (4). The three sisters were also associated with building projects in Aragón during the reign of Sancho Ramírez, such as that of Santa María of Santa Cruz de la Serós, San Pedro Cathedral of Jaca, and the church of San Pedro inside the Loarre Castle, while Sancha also remained involved in matters in court (5). Doña Sancha, as a royal woman and a widow (of Count Ermengol III of Urgell) without sons, possessed a considerable degree of financial independence, thanks to the infantado (also called infantazgo) institution and the 1077 legal charter Fuero of Jaca (6). Widowed early in her life in 1065, Sancha joined her sisters to settle down at the convent of Santa María, where she and her sisters were eventually buried (7). No sarcophagi of her sisters survived; the sarcophagus of Doña Sancha has been the resting place of Sancha, Teresa, and Urraca ever since the translation of the sarcophagus to the Benedictine monastery in Jaca in the seventeenth century (8).

Explore the sarcophagus of Doña Sancha in the 3D model below.

 
 

El Real Monasterio de las Benedictinas

Sarcophagus of Doña Sancha

On one of the long sides, two angels bear the soul of Doña Sancha - represented as a nude, genderless child inside a mandorla - to heaven - a common motif that can also be found on the sarcophagus lid of Doña Blanca of Navarre. To the right of this scene, Sancha is depicted as she was in life, and flanked by two similarly nobly-clad women who are often identified as her sisters, Teresa and Urraca (9). The scene to the left shows a bishop, identified by his crozier, and two additional tonsured clerics, presumably at the funeral procession of Doña Sancha. On the opposite side, the imagery takes a more militant turn as we see two horsemen jousting with each other, while a lion-fighter - traditionally identified as one of the biblical heroes Samson or David (10) - rends the jaws of a lion as a visual metaphor for good triumphing over evil. A chrismon (or Chi-Rho) lies on one of the narrow faces, while a pair of griffins inhabit the other side, their necks twisting back so that their beaks delicately touch each other.

The sarcophagus of Doña Sancha has been considered one of the earliest Romanesque monumental sculptures - in fact Arthur Kingsley Porter used this as his pivotal evidence to argue that Spanish Romanesque architecture and sculpture flourished before the French (11). Even though later scholars have generally revised Porter's dating to a later one (the first quarter of the twelfth century) (12), this monument is still undoubtedly a key work of the "twelfth-century renaissance", and an example of how "Roman-esque" art owes some debt to classical and early-Christian art. The chrismon on one of the narrow sides, for example, is a common motif on early-Christian sarcophagi (13), and can find its cousin on the west-portal tympanum of the nearby San Pedro Cathedral (also known as Jaca Cathedral). Doron Bauer, in his dissertation, highlights that royal families and nobles in northern Spain had the custom of reusing Roman and early-Christian sarcophagi for their own burials, and proposes this as the reason that Romanesque sculpture makers - including those of the sarcophagus of Doña Sancha in question - drew stylistic and iconographic inspirations from these ancient sarcophagi (14). Other than drawing inspiration from ancient Roman or early-Christian sarcophagi that were nearby in Spain, pilgrimage could also be a means of the transmission of classical art, especially considering Jaca's position along the Camino de Santiago (15). Doña Sancha's brother, King Sancho Ramírez of Aragón, in fact made a pilgrimage journey to Rome himself, with the intention of building a good relationship with the Pope and so strengthening his kingdom (16).

Although a date of the early twelfth century completely excludes the possibility of Sancha having any design input on her own sarcophagus, it does not, as Therese Martin stresses, in any way preclude her from being seen as one of the "makers" of this monument - without Doña Sancha, the convent church of Santa María of Santa Cruz de la Serós, where she was originally buried, would not have stood as it had, and as it still stands today (17).

 
 
 
 
Notes

(1) Janice Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120: Exploring Frontiers and Defining Identities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 81, 91; "Monasterio de Santa Cruz – Monjas Benedictinas," Ayutamiento de Jaca, accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.jaca.es/turismo/romanico/monasterio-de-santa-cruz-monjas-benedictinas.html.

(2) "Monasterio de Santa Cruz – Monjas Benedictinas," Ayutamiento de Jaca.

(3) Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 81; "Monasterio de Santa Cruz – Monjas Benedictinas," Ayutamiento de Jaca; Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen: The Sarcophagus of Doña Blanca in Nájera," in Memory and the Medieval Tomb, eds. Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo and Carol Stamatis Pendergast (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 46.

(4) Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 91-92; Therese Martin, "The margin to act: a framework of investigation for women's (and men's) medieval art-making," Journal of Medieval History 42, no. 1 (2016): 16.

(5) Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 77, 90, 103; Martin, "The margin to act," 18.

(6) The infantado institution regulated that unmarried infantas could inherit monastic lands, and the 1077 Fuero of Jaca states that women without sons could dispose of their lands as they saw fit, see Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 76-78.

(7) Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 92; Martin, "The margin to act," 16; Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 46.

(8) Arthur Kingsley Porter first makes the observation that the sarcophagus contains the remains of all three princesses, a remark that Janice Mann cautiously agrees with and provides further evidences to support. Porter, "The Tomb of Doña Sancha and the Romanesque Art of Aragón," The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 45, no. 259 (1924): 165-166; Mann, omanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 81.

(9) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 47; Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 81; Martin, "The margin to act," 16.

(10) Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 47; Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 81; Martin, "The margin to act," 17.

(11) Porter, "The Tomb of Doña Sancha and the Romanesque Art of Aragón," 165-79.

(12) Martin, "The margin to act," 17-18; David L. Simon, ‘Le sarcophage de Doña Sancha à Jaca’, Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa 10 (1979): 107–24; Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 82; Valdez del Alamo, "Lament for a Lost Queen," 46.

(13) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy: Aragon in the Late Eleventh Century," Anales de Historia del Arte Volumen Extraordinario, no. 2 (2011): 382.

(14) Doron Bauer, "Social Practices and Romanesque Architectural Sculpture in the Pyrenees" (PhD diss., John Hopkins Universtiy, 2012), 26-49.

(15) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy: Aragon in the Late Eleventh Century," 368-69; Annie Shaver-Crandell, Paula Gerson, and Alison Stones, The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela: A Gazetteer (Knightsbridge, London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1995), 205-08, see also the section "Pilgrimage Routes" at 418-20.

(16) Simon, "Art for a New Monarchy: Aragon in the Late Eleventh Century," 387; Mann, Romanesque Architecture and its Sculptural Decoration in Christian Spain, 1000-1120, 109.

(17) Martin, "The margin to act," 18.

© Liz Lastra